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Appearances can be deceptive. Consider 'Gold', with its rather cartoonish cover and its gently whimsical opening:
"Tall Mr Hughes, short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw were standing at the bar of The Anchor. 'You know what we would be doing right now if we were alligators?' asked tall Mr Hughes, who had hardly spoken about anything but alligators for three consecutive evenings. It had been alligators this, and alligators that."
The novel is about Miyuki Woodward, who's on her annual two-week holiday away from her partner Grindl (the idea being that some regular time apart will make their relationship stronger). Every year for the past eight years, Miyuki has travelled in the middle of winter to the same Pembrokeshire village, where she does nothing much but go walking, visit the pub for the odd pint, and eat whatever she feels like (usually something like a Pot Noodle and a packet of crisps). This year is largely the same, except... except that this year, Miyuki has decided to do something else. She has noticed in previous years that one particular rock on one particular beach, when viewed from a certain angle in a certain light, appears gold. This year, she sprays that rock with gold paint, just to make the illusion real.
All this may sound like the novelistic equivalent of a Sunday-evening television drama. I would shatter such misconceptions in short order, except that, to a certain extent, they're not misconceptions at all. For 'Gold' is largely populated by a bunch of caricatures, like Mr Puw, who calls Miyuki 'Thunderthigs' (but then, he calls all women that); and Septic Barry, who formed a band (the Children from Previous Relationships) that has never played anywhere (unless you count taking part in pub quizzes). And there is a certain amount of repetition, both in the events and the prose; so it's no surprise if the book appears safe and cosy.
Now I can shatter those misconceptions – or, at least, begin to fracture them.
One of the central themes of 'Gold' is that (like the gold-painted rock) the way people appear on the surface may not tell the full story of who they really are. The author treats this theme in a pleasingly subtle fashion, but it goes right to the heart of his book. Miyuki herself has the appearance of being Japanese, but is Welsh in all other respects; and she hides her home life – even her name – from the people she knows on holiday (the interludes depicting her 'real' life feel distant, almost dreamlike, compared to the present-day holiday sequences). Similarly, Miyuki comes to understand that all those local 'characters' aren't as one-dimensional as they appear to her, but have full lives of their own beyond the pub doors. And that's not the only surprise waiting in the wings...
It's a measure of Dan Rhodes's skill as a writer that 'Gold' is such an enjoyable journey. The opening sections, where all is still as it seems, could so easily have grated (perhaps would have done so were the book much longer than its 200 pages), but there's a warmth to Rhodes's writing which prevents that. The book also has some highly amusing moments (such as the tale of the pub landlord who decides to insult his patrons because they all seem to delight in talking about the bad service they've received elsewhere – but the plan backfires on him). And the ending is superbly affecting.
I can't recall the last time I was so compelled by a book in which ostensibly nothing (and yet so very much) happens. 'Gold' is a quiet and unassuming book but – fittingly enough – it is also, when you look closely enough, a book that gleams and sparkles.
Reproduced with permission
David Hebblethwaite lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.
(Canongate Books 2007)
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
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